By Mary Helen Darcy, N.P.
Hallmark Health Medical Associates
Expectant moms know the routine all too well—appointment after appointment, trip after trip to the doctor for checkups. It can be daunting to sift through all the information you receive to help you have a healthy pregnancy.
But there’s one important recommendation we ask that you keep top-of-mind. We suggest that all our pregnant moms get a vaccine that can keep their babies safe from a serious respiratory disease after birth – the whooping cough vaccine.
The whooping cough vaccine is proven to be safe and effective for pregnant women and their babies, and it’s never been more necessary.
What is whooping cough?
Whooping cough – also known as pertussis – is a highly contagious respiratory disease. This infection can cause uncontrollable, sometimes violent coughing with a characteristic “whooping” sound. Very young infants may not have the characteristic cough. They can develop difficulty breathing, low heart rates, and pneumonia.
Whooping cough is a contagious disease that can be fatal in young children, especially in infants younger than one year old. The disease is receiving renewed attention because in 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported more than 48,000 cases of pertussis – including 648 cases and one infant death in Massachusetts. That’s the highest number of cases in the United States since 1955!
Whooping cough re-emerged in 2012 partly because the medical community thought the childhood vaccine for pertussis provided immunity for life, so no boosters or additional vaccines were given to adults. Whooping cough cases also increased because a larger number of parents are opting not to vaccinate their children.
When we don’t vaccinate, previously controlled diseases begin to pop back up. The 2012 whooping cough epidemic is a clear example of the need to vaccinate, and that some vaccines require a “booster” to keep us healthy.
Why do pregnant women need a whooping cough vaccine or booster?
The whooping cough vaccine is also known as the Tdap vaccine, which stands for tetanus, diphtheria, and acellular pertussis. When women receive the Tdap vaccination between 27 and 36 weeks of pregnancy, the woman’s antibodies can be transferred to her baby through the placenta.
Antibodies are proteins the body makes to fight off diseases. Getting the vaccine during pregnancy arms your child with antibodies before birth and during the first few months of life before their immune system develops and until they receive their first immunizations.
Even if you received the whooping cough vaccine as a child or young adult, you should get a “booster” when you are pregnant. The antibodies related to pertussis wear off as we grow older. In other words, your childhood vaccine will not protect your unborn baby.
Does the whooping cough vaccine work?
To be successful in preventing pertussis in infants, the U.S. Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and the CDC recommends that women receive a dose of Tdap during each pregnancy.
We began recommending the Tdap vaccine for pregnant women in our offices in 2013, the year that ACOG (the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists), released practice guidelines supporting the administration of the Tdap vaccine in pregnancy.
The vaccine contains a deactivated strain of the virus, so neither the mom nor her baby can get whooping cough from receiving the vaccine. The main side effect from the immunization is mild discomfort in the injection site that usually resolves within 72 hours.
Who else should be vaccinated against whooping cough?
In a perfect world, all adults would get the Tdap vaccine. It is often difficult to spot symptoms of whooping cough before it spreads to others. What may seem like a common cold to an adult can be devastating – even fatal – to the delicate immune system of a newborn baby.
At any rate, it’s a good idea for anyone who plans to be around your baby to receive the Tdap vaccine if they have not been previously vaccinated. That includes grandparents, daycare providers, and close family friends because in 50 percent of cases, the infant was infected by a close household contact. Ideally, the vaccine should be given 2 weeks before the individual has close contact with the infant. People who are currently sick should talk to their doctor and delay getting the vaccination until they feel healthy.
For more information about the whooping cough epidemic, check out Immunization For Women. If you’re pregnant and want to protect your baby from whooping cough, contact us for more information.